For the Birds Radio Program: Saved by a Hummingbird
Our need for nature
Early last Saturday morning, I drove to the Twin Cities for the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union’s annual paper session. I left my house at 5:30, when it was quite dark. The temperature was 37 degrees, and it hadn’t snowed in over a day, but the temperature had gone down to single digits the day before, making the ground quite cold, and moisture in the air condensed on the pavement and froze. I don’t think most people driving that morning expected such icy conditions when the weather was so good, and so many drivers were going way too fast. I saw at least 8 cars that had skidded off the pavement between Duluth and Hinckley, including at least 2 SUVs that had passed me at breakneck speed a while before I passed them. There were flashing lights for police and rescue vehicles all along the road, and worst of all was a crushed minivan with several ambulances at the scene near Hinckley.
So in those harrowing conditions, I was ready for a break and decided to stop at Tobies until the rising sun could melt some of the ice. It hadn’t registered that the picture of Viola the Hummingbird was above the fold on the first page of the Duluth News-Tribune that morning, but when I approached the store, I saw a few people gathered around the newspaper vending machine, all talking in surprised voices about the Duluth hummingbird. Inside, as I stood in line waiting to order my coffee and donut, other people in line were also talking about the hummingbird. I didn’t tell anyone that they were talking about MY bird—it was just fun hearing the conversation. And it wasn’t until I started up my car a while later that my thoughts went back to those accidents on the highway, and how at least one of them had quite likely badly injured, and maybe even killed, some human beings. Probably half the people at Tobies had passed that same accident—I’m sure that the bad conditions were what led so many more people than usual to stop in the first place—and getting out of cars in the parking lot, people seemed tense and somber. But somehow a little hummingbird on the front page of a newspaper was such an unexpectedly lovely and whimsical image that for a little bit, people could escape the harsher world of I-35.
Birds give us humans a great many gifts. Much of the animal protein that sustains us comes from birds and their eggs. Much of the sport that thrills hunters comes from birds, and many fly fishermen use bird feathers in tying their flies. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States were penned with a quill feather from a bird. Out literature is imbued with images and metaphors of birds, and many of our expressions include avian references. Birds provide us birders with sport and fun and inspiration. But perhaps the most important of all their abundant gifts to us humans is in momentary magical releases from our mundane and often troubling day-to-day lives. When we stop traffic to help a mother duck get her ducklings safely across a highway, when our spirits lighten at the sound of the first robin of spring, when our heart stops as a Bald Eagle materializes in a blue sky right over our head, when we suddenly encounter an owl hunkered down on a power pole or tree—all those little moments change our day. In Robert Frost’s lovely poem, Dust of Snow, he writes, “The way a crow shook down on me the dust of snow from a hemlock tree has given my heart a change of mood and saved some part of a day I had rued.” And somehow the unexpected and delightful thought of a tiny hummingbird visiting Minnesota in early winter saved some part of an otherwise grim and harsh morning on Interstate 35.